question of the day: Is ‘It’s Complicated’’s R rating unfair?

Time to complain again about how ridiculously out of whack the MPAA is. And it’s The New York Times highlighting it:

The romantic comedy “It’s Complicated” arrived at the multiplex on Friday complete with an R rating, ranking it in the same category as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Basic Instinct” in the eyes of the Motion Picture Association of America.

But there is no violence in “It’s Complicated,” and the bedroom scenes are decidedly tame by contemporary standards. Instead, the R rating — which experts say could limit the box-office potential of the Universal Pictures film — comes largely from a sequence in which Steve Martin and Meryl Streep smoke marijuana.

Now, I’d failed to even focus on the rating because I was distracted by how annoying and insulting the film is. But this is preposterous: Avatar gets a PG-13 even though it’s rife with violence on scales small and large; Sherlock Holmes gets a PG-13 even though it features more than one scene in which Holmes analytically determines how to physically take down an opponent — where to punch for maximum physical and psychological impact. What sense does that make?

It was not specifically the actual drug use that got “It’s Complicated,” about a divorced woman who has an affair with her remarried ex-husband, into this pickle, according to people with knowledge of how the decision was reached. Instead, the ratings board was concerned about what the movie did not have: a negative consequence for the behavior. (Ms. Graves said that “no scrutiny or outside influence impacts the rating of any film — period.”)

The board, according to these people, thought the scene was uproariously funny and could leave children with a strong message that smoking marijuana is fun. The opposite, of course, could be argued: One way to make young people think that marijuana is uncool is to show the white-haired Mr. Martin, 64, smoking it.

Okay, now this is really ridiculous. If the MPAA is really worried that kids will want to smoke pot because Steve Martin does, in a movie kids won’t even see, and will be totally bored with if they do, why aren’t they worried that kids will want to emulate Sherlock Holmes, the hero of a film kids will almost certainly want to see, and punch people with cool logic? I mean, those scenes in Holmes are clever and funny and perfectly illustrative of Holmes’ character… but you have to be able to make some adult distinctions to understand that. I don’t know that Holmes is appropriate for youngsters who cannot appreciate such distinctions.

It seems to me that the world would be a much better place if more people smoked pot and fewer people threw punches. And it really does look to me as if, once again, the MPAA has demonstrated that violence is perfectly acceptable for kids to see.

Is It’s Complicated’s R rating unfair?

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Remy Michael
Remy Michael
Fri, Dec 25, 2009 11:57am

While I agree that it is a harsh rating to give, it seems like the only rating the MPAA can give a mainstream movie that has content they disagree with is the R-rating. I also agree that their view of violence has gone completely out of whack and the rating system is a joke.

However, theaters don’t enforce anything else. And while I am not a parent, I could understand parents not wanting their children to have access to such content without permission or supervision (depending on age). I would think they would want a gatekeeper on the violence too, but I digress.

Now, all that being said: who under 18 is going to watch this movie? Really?

So, yes, statistically it can hurt the box office. And yes, the movie was funny and charming. But it was never going to be a blockbuster, and with the age of the cast, I doubt that there will be too many people going to see this movie that will even need to pull out their ID to see it (myself included).

Fri, Dec 25, 2009 4:55pm

Since it has been pointed out that no one who would want to see this movie is legally affected by the R rating, why would you all think it will effect their sales?

But I agree that the acceptability of violence but unaccepability of sex in movies is hypocritical. I choose “hypocritical” as my adjective because if sex was so bad, they shouldn’t be hiring actresses based upon how many sexy thoughts they inspire.

Fri, Dec 25, 2009 5:59pm

“It seems to me that the world would be a much better place if more people smoked pot and fewer people threw punches.”
Amen to that, Mary Ann.

Sat, Dec 26, 2009 1:13am

Yeah, in the case of another, better movie: it always bothered me about the ‘R’ rating given to Wonder Boys for ‘mild language and drug use’

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Sat, Dec 26, 2009 5:27am

Someone pointed out on the Onion AV Club boards that the MPAA’s standards for violence and drug use are completely at odds with each other. In a scene of violence, you can get away with a lower rating as long as you don’t show the consequences – who cares whether Sherlock Holmes is teaching imitable and potentially deadly fighting techniques? All that happens is that people fall backwards in slow motion and go “uuurgh”, it’s not as if there’s any gore. Whereas on the other hand scenes of drug use must show the most gruelling, extreme and implausible side effects in order to get a lower rating.

This is one of those issues where I’m sort of annoyed at the studios too for being so blinded in their quest for the golden PG-13 that they’ve missed the obvious point that several people have already pointed out here; this movie isn’t going to appeal to teenagers. Why not be proud of making a movie intended for adults?

Sat, Dec 26, 2009 1:39pm

The board, according to these people, thought the scene was uproariously funny and could leave children with a strong message that smoking marijuana is fun.

Ahhhhh ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!! Wait, lemme go back and read that again.

Ahhhh ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha hahaaaaaa!!!!

Sat, Dec 26, 2009 8:48pm

But you can’t let the children know that drugs exist. Sex and violence have been around from the dawn of time, but drugs, drugs are all newfangled and secret and maybe if we don’t talk about them the kids won’t know they exist! Well, we at least can’t let them know that a single grown-up in the history of the world has ever liked it. Cause you know, all the PSAs tell you that drugs are bad and if we ever contradicted that at all civilization would instantly collape! We’d be doooomed!!!


Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Sun, Dec 27, 2009 3:22pm

“It seems to me that the world would be a much better place if more people smoked pot and fewer people threw punches.”

And yet the more people that smoke pot in this part of the world, the more violence there seems to be in other parts of the world. But fortunately, none of it involves punching so that’s okay…

Seriously, worrying about whether or not on-screen drug use is going to inspire real-life teenagers to smoke pot seems so quaint at a time when we’ve had not one but now three Presidents who have been accused of using illegal drugs in their youth. But, hey, no one looks up to politicians the way they do movie stars so that doesn’t count…

Mon, Dec 28, 2009 8:47am

The MPAA being ridiculous? Shocking. These are the same people who were willing to give a movie an NC-17 rating because it dared to show a woman having an orgasm on screen. They had no problem with the implied sex act, but seeing her actually enjoy sex was apparently too much. Meanwhile movies showing men in the same situation get away with an R rating. I love how they basically state that their agenda is to play moral guardian. God forbid the use of marijuana be portrayed as innocuously as it actually is. That doesn’t jive with all the propaganda and misinformation they and other moral guardians have worked so hard to spread.

Mon, Dec 28, 2009 1:20pm

IMO, the criticism of this article and many of its comments is misdirected.

Criticisms that the MPAA plays “moral guardian” and outcries of “why does the MPAA consider sex and drugs worse than violence?” are backward.

The MPAA reflects what have been, for right or wrong, the cultural mores of America for a very long time. There’s more murder than sex in The Odyssey, the Bible, Fenimore Cooper, and Huck Finn. Since there’s more violence than sex, it must be considered, culturally, a more acceptable subject for art.

The real criticism is “why does our culture consider sex worse than violence?” Or, “why does our culture consider violence more interesting than sex?” Which may be for the simple reason that most people will eventually have sex but very few will ever kill anybody.

For that reason alone I would rather see a movie about something I have never done and will probably never do, as opposed to something I did last night, giggity-giggity.

Wed, Dec 30, 2009 12:09am

I suggest you watch “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” for a closer look at the MPAA’s practices. The MPAA are moral guardians and they are protecting their set of mores, not America’s. They represent the American culture about as well as you’d expect a panel of mostly older white Christians to, which is to say that they represent a very specific subset of the population’s views on things.

I also thoroughly disagree with your suggestion about why murder is more acceptable than sex. I neither desire to murder anyone nor do I need to live vicariously through characters on-screen who do. Regardless, it’s that things like sex are made to seem bad, not that it simply isn’t shown as much as violence is. The fact that a movie gets an R-rating for drug use without consequences while another movie can remain PG-13 so long as none of the corpses bleed sends the clear message that the former is considered worse than the latter. I’d much rather my kid think to try pot than to try murder, so it baffles me why violence without consequences is not more harshly penalized in the ratings system than drug use without consequences.

Thu, Dec 31, 2009 1:14pm


I applaud you for having your morals in order.

Here’s what I mean by cultural mores:

Which do you think would upset more American parents?

1) A pack of 13-year-old boys and girls going to see “Lord of the Rings,” in which war is portrayed as bloodless, easily repaired, comprised of black-and-white morality, and something that only kills characters who don’t have names?


2) That same pack of 13-year-old boys and girls watching softcore porn on the Spice Channel, in which consensual sex between adults is portrayed as fun without consequence?

You can do all the ethical gymnastics you want to prove how you would prefer your children watch the Spice Channel, but you can’t for a moment believe that most American parents would share your opinion.


Congress got a lot closer to impeaching President Clinton for stepping out on his wife (SEX BAD!) than President Bush II for leading America into an unnecessary bloodbath (VIOLENCE OKAY!). Last time I checked, Congress is elected by the American people, not by the MPAA.

This morality may be completely upside-down and perpetuated by the MPAA, but the MPAA didn’t invent it. Point being, a preference for violence over sex is not the work of a small band of MPAA dudes in some West Coast ivory tower.

As for your claim that you don’t enjoy watching characters on-screen do things you would never do – you’re kidding, right? Movies and fiction are almost nothing but the vicarious experience of things we would never do.

Did you stop reading “The Iliad” because everyone in it is a philandering murderer? Do you discount the entire works of Faulkner because he writes about so many Confederate sympathizers? Is a random episode of “The Facts of Life” more valuable than Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” because they learn life lessons instead of burying someone alive?

Thu, Dec 31, 2009 3:34pm

A pack of 13-year-old boys and girls going to see “Lord of the Rings,” in which war is portrayed as bloodless, easily repaired, comprised of black-and-white morality, and something that only kills characters who don’t have names?

I see the larger point you’re trying to make, but disagree with your characterization of the LOTR films. Bloodless? Hardly. Easily repaired? Frodo, among others, receives physical and psychic wounds that stay with him all his life. Black-and-white morality? There was good versus evil, yes, but also the acknowledgment that both can reside in the same person (and see for Faramir humanizing the enemy and denouncing war–granted, just in the Extended Editions). Only nameless, unimportant characters get killed? You need to watch the films again. ;-)